GOONL!NE Review: ModNation Racers

Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Also on: PlayStation Portable
Format Played On: PlayStation 3
Release Date: May 21st 2010
Age Rating: ESRB: E

[You can find our review for the PSP version of ModNation Racers here.]

When you think of karting games there is always one title that spring to mind, Mario. Yes ever since Super Mario Kart appeared on the SNES in 1992, that little pudgy Italian plumber has been synonymous with the karting genre and very few have ever been able to touch him.

Now United Front Games have had a go, and well, they’ve come pretty close. Taking some excellent karting mechanics as a basis and infusing them with LittleBigPlanet-style customisation has made ModNation Racers a very highly anticipated title for many.

The “Play, Create, Share” mantra of LBP has been carried over into ModNation very successfully. In the game you can create your own Mod (the games term for the racer),  sculpt your own track and craft your own kart. Of course it doesn’t just stop there, you can then upload them to the ModNation servers to show off your creative (or in my case, lack of) talent for other to judge.

A problem I had with LittleBigPlanet was, as powerful as the creation tools were that you were given, I never found them fun nor as easy to use as they should’ve been, whereas in ModNation Racers I felt like God as I landscaped areas into my dream track. Customisation in all areas is deep without making newcomers to the game feel scared in anyway.

Tutorials given to you in the Creation Station hold your hand through the building of your first Mod, track and kart. After you’ve managed to get to grips with the basics, it’s up to you to run riot with the tools you have available. There are an insane number of ways to customise your Mod so it’d be very surprising to see the same little guy pop up twice online. The tools of course give you the power to make certain well-known characters, so expect Mario to appear at some point, though for copyright reasons we can’t see Sony letting him stay around for too long to enjoy the party.

Customising cars is equally as varied as creating a Mod, again you’ve hundreds of different options to choose from, and as you progress through the career your choice of item becomes even more varied. Being the boring sole that I am the first thing I went and built as a Mod of Michael Schumacher from his Ferrari days and a very rough replica of his Ferrari F1 car.

Creating tracks is an breeze, and you’ve 4 areas to choose from when creating, desert, jungle, seaside or alpine scenery. You can, if you’re not feeling very creative or happen to be very lazy, create some of the track yourself and let the game finish the rest of it for you, it’ll even auto-populate the area with various power-ups and scenery for you too. The only limiting factor in the creation area of ModNation Racers is yourself, the tools that United Front Games have given gamers have the potential to see some truly outstanding pieces of work come from the community.

Creation aside, what else does ModNation Racers have to offer? Well the game is without doubt the best kart experience of this generation, easily matching and beating Mario Kart Wii. Where Mario Kart responded to deft touches of the controller, ModNation feels heavier by design, the karts feel more substantial as you race them.

The tracks are generally your usual karting fare, and tend to be favour drifters with their generally large width. There are massive jumps to get some air off too, as well as some tricky tracks where straying off the beaten path will end in your demise. Weaponry is catered for with the sort of items you’d expect, rockets, lightning, special boosts and the such, with all the power-ups having three levels of power similar to Mario.

To help protect you from power-ups you have a temporary shield in the game. Your boost meter down the right hand side of the screen (which can be filled by drifting, drafting and performing stunts in the air) doubles up as a shield meter which can be activated by pressing circle. It can be invaluable at times, especially on the last lap when the AI does it’s best to take you out.

The career mode in the game follows the story of Tag and his quest to win the ModNation Racing Championship. The championship is hosted by two anchors Biff Tradwell and Gary Reasons. These two follow your career from start to finish, with Biff being evocative of J.Jonah Jamesson from the Spiderman films. The two hosts have an appealing banter between them which is reminiscent of the sort of comedy style you’d expect from Dodgeball or Anchorman. They won’t have your sides splitting by any means, but their jovial humour is very endearing and you will look forward to seeing them before and/or after a race.

All the personalities you come across in the game are likeable, from your team through to your chief  rival Espresso, who has some wonderful little moments and details that I’ll not spoil in the review.

The career mode does however have the tendency to make slightly miffed at times. There is some serious rubber banding in the game, so you can never quite pull away from the pack and totally dominate a race, the other characters will always be within distance of you to, if you slip up, snatch the victory from you in the blink of an eye.

The objectives in races can be a frustrating affair too. Some of the things you’re challenged with doing during a race is things like scoring 20,000 drift points, taking down 3 opponents and such. It can be pretty annoying when you’ve achieved all the objectives set for you (completing objectives unlocks more customisation to play around with in the Creation Station) yet don’t actually get the rewards because you’ve come second in the race rather than first.  A bit harsh I feel as some races can truly push your patience.

ModNation of course is more than just the single player and creation components, there is also the option (which everyone will no doubt be delight to hear) for local multiplayer in the form of split-screen matches on your TV for up to four people, something that has been carelessly omitted from some previous racing titles.

Sadly at time of review the online servers weren’t live to test out the network part of the online, however going from the Beta test it should prove frantic and highly entertaining. What’s more, you can take one friend online with you locally and the two of you can race online together. Online racing allows for 12 players on the grid at a time, plenty of people for you to destroy on the track.

There is one last point I have to make before I conclude, and if you’ve read anything about ModNation you might have an idea what I’m going to mention; loading times. If you were part of the beta trial you’ll remember the loading screens well as you’ll have stared at them for an eternity, the time it took to get past them was diabolical. You will then however be pleased to know that the times have improved, but not to the standard they should be.

They’re still far too long, getting from the XMB to the ModSpot takes an agonising two and a half minutes, an eternity when all you want is a quick race. Moreover, any time you change between major sections in ModSpot there is a loading time, when you start a race there’s a loading time, and when you end a race… yep, there’s a loading time to endure. Once you’re actually in the game they aren’t too bad, about half a minute long on average and you’ll be glad to know that the devs have said they’ll try sort them out with a post-launch patch. The 1.01 patch though is not that, so if you think it’s a Jesus patch to fix ModNation, it’s not.

Final Thoughts: So, is this Sony’s answer to Mario Kart? Yes, in my view ModNation Racers runs Mario as close as any other game up until now has. Whilst Mario has a special place engrained in the hearts of most gamers, United Front Games have done an admirable job of endearing this title to us.

The core karting mechanics are very well done and there is a good length to the career mode, however it’ll be up to the talent and imagination of the community as to whether ModNation Racers lasts in the long term.

Story: 8  – The characters are hugely likeable and there is a good sense of fun given off throughout. The career isn’t so long that you lose interest in it either.

Gameplay: 9 – Drifting is solid and there is a reasonable difficulty curve, although the last few races may have you grinding your teeth in frustration at times.

Graphics: 9 – ModNation is bright, colourful and varied. There are no frame rate drops or screen tearing to be seen, however some of the details, like the decals on character models, could be a tad sharper and crisper.

Sound: 8 – Great voice acting by the cast makes the cut scenes a delight to sit through. There is also the bonus of custom soundtracks available too if you don’t like the selection of music on offer to you.

Overall: 9/10 – The creation side of the game rivals that of LittleBigPlanet, the karting is up near the standard set by Mario. Combine them together and you get a class act of a game. Simple, smart and hugely fun ModNation Racers a must-own title.